In case you missed the boom, Call the Midwife is a BBC period drama about a group of midwives servicing London’s East End in the 1950s, originally based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. It is the newest big show to hit UK television with ratings roughly matching those of Sherlock and Downton Abbey and surpassing Doctor Who itself. Call the Midwife was also featured in 2013’s Comedy Relief sketch (partnering with Doctor Who in this endeavor) and has Paul McGann’s brother, Stephen McGann as a prominent character in their series. UK TV ends up being a bit incestuous.
Medical shows are a hard sell to those who work in the medical field. Much in the same way those in the tech field often cannot help but point out the inconsistencies and illogical moments when tech appears in TV or cinema, those of us in the medical field see the problems others can safely ignore. Even “reality” medical shows fall afoul of this issue, I remember yelling at a Mystery Diagnosis episode that “there is dumbing the facts down for the laypeople and then there is outright lying to them!”
But this is a problem that Call the Midwife sidesteps so well. Because the medicine is very rarely, if ever, the focus of the episode. With the emphasis shifted, they only have to include as many medical facts as they see fit. We never get a long and convoluted explanation of what is going on or why things are stressful, we get just enough to see the broad shapes of the situation and are led to conclusions about the situation by the players reactions to it. They stay vague enough to avoid getting things significantly wrong (though I feel I should disclaim all this by mentioning I am very much NOT a maternity nurse, there may be errors I do not pick up on). This era is also just out of step enough with the present that, unless there are glaring “no, that cannot possibly make sense if they’ve got brains in their heads,” I may not necessarily notice the errors. These are all things I appreciate enormously. It is so nice to be able to watch a medical show without the nurse brain picking apart every little detail.
So what’s the focus of Call the Midwife if it’s not the medicine? Well, it’s the people of course. And not in the schmaltzy, soapy Grey’s Anatomy sense. It’s what I adore about Call the Midwife, it’s the key to how they do convey how stressful situations are. It’s never the stress of watching numbers trend down or hearing alarms blaring, it is watching the people who are in the trenches give each other knowing and mildly terrified looks, gritting their teeth and getting through it. It is watching these women get their patients and each other through heart-wrenching, soul-crushing and nightmare-inducing situations. It is about them going home and getting on with their lives after.
And here we get to what, to my mind, makes this show so good. This is a show about a group of women who walk into people’s homes and see the most intimate parts of their lives. It is about walking into strangers’ lives and seeing the absolute best and worst of them. It is about being pulled intimately into the worlds of others and watching them face incredible challenges, about watching some soar with grace and dignity while others are crushed, made small and petty. It is about caring for each and every one of them regardless of their challenges and reactions to them. And it is about having a life beyond the nearly all-consuming task of caring for the people around them.
That’s one of the clever things about having the midwives quarters in Nonnatus House, in having them live where they work. Because any nurse will tell you, one of the hardest parts of our job is leaving work at work. We are terrible at self care, both in attending to our own health and it ensuring that we have lives beyond our work. Having the midwives live at Nonnatus House gives them an insulated little microcosm in which they always have people who can relate to them (hey, hey, an easy in to the storytelling) but also makes it demonstrably harder to have a life outside of the work. It keeps the women mired in the work which, again, helps the storyteller. It is why Chummy needed to get her own home when she had her own family and why Jenny’s departure from Nonnatus House coincides with her departure from the story.
And, let me be clear, that is what nursing is like. Sometimes it takes a physical departure or a tangible break from a situation or unit or hospital before you can leave a situation behind. And sometimes even that doesn’t work. The lives of strangers become more important to you than your own self-care. If we are not careful, it becomes toxic. Call the Midwife is about women who do it well. And this is what I love about this show. It discusses the torment and joy of being a nurse in a very real sense. I love the science, I love the medicine, but that’s not what nursing is about. It is about the people we care for, it is about making horrible situations, if not good, at least better.
And you can never escape the grip of your job. Just yesterday, I had a conversation I wished I’d never have to have with someone I know and one I know I will have over and over again. My upstairs neighbor, one of the sweetest people I have ever met, has recurrent colon cancer. She had to tap out after three out of five months of chemo because she just couldn’t do it anymore and any oncologist will tell you stopping treatment early is no longer a curative gameplan. I went up to see her and give her a hug before work. She accepted it then quickly ushered me away saying “you have to go get ready to help people like me.” I still want to cry. Of course, I told her if she needed anything at all she could call me. I never wanted to be her nurse. I never wanted to be the nurse for my family members or friends. But I will over and over again. Because, Nonnatus House or no, nursing becomes your world. For better or for worse, your life becomes entirely about the people around you.
Which brings us to Rory. Because this is the tradition and the lifestyle that gave rise to Rory Williams, the last centurion. Like anyone else who has slogged through the best and the worst of people, Rory’s identity as a nurse informs everything he does. His work on a coma ward, watching over his patients and waiting for signs of life, made him uniquely prepared to watch over the Pandorica and wait for nearly two millennia for his wife to emerge.
It isn’t until Rory guards the Pandorica that he embraces his role as nurse to the Doctor’s… well, doctor. Prior to becoming “the last centurion,” he is still unsure, still hesitant, still the third wheel to Amy and the Doctor. Amy’s Choice, in which Rory’s “dream” of becoming a doctor, must necessarily come before his role as a nurse is solidified. The episode-long dick-measuring contest only make sense if Rory and the Doctor are measured on the same scale. We see moments of Rory-as-nurse, small instances, caring for Mack in Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, pointing out that the Doctor is calling back the bad things in The Eleventh Hour. He is the novice nurse, learning the ropes, figuring out his place in the scene.
And then we get to the Big Bang and we see Rory as nurse, as the sort of nurse described above. One who will, to the detriment of his own health and safety and well-being, will ensure the health and safety and well-being of people around him. He’s not just being human here, he is being the caregiver. Without the convenience of Nonnatus House to frame the terse story of caring, we instead have the Pandorica.
And, the fact is, the Doctor needs a nurse. Someone who hears the grand, sweeping statements and proclamations and thinks about the practicalities and the people involved. He needs someone who is patient and caring and kind. He needs someone who complains “it is always my turn” when ensuring people adjust to the bizarre reality that is the TARDIS and yet does it every time. He needs someone who will grit his teeth, do what needs to be done and get through it. It’s little wonder that Rory is the one in the Impossible Astronaut who gives voice to what has to happen next. It is the job of doctors to make grand statements, it is the job of nurses to keep reality in sight, for better or worse.
Because without a nurse, without a caregiver, we have the sort of Doctor who is okay with removing the autonomy of others. See how Donna’s story ended. The Doctor, in Journey’s End, essentially ignores a DNR/DNI order. That is the reality of what happened with Donna. The very point of the Doctor/Donna metacrisis is that she knows. She understands everything. She understands what is happening to her and why it is happening and, with that full knowledge, makes a choice. But the Doctor’s choices completely wipe any autonomy from Donna in determining her own quality of life. It is a type of violation that I have come to think of, in my own practice, as medical rape.
One of the most striking things about my reaction to the scene is how frightfully typical of doctors this is. There is still this attitude among a lot of the MDs that every death is a failure. So they push. They spin. They present information in ways that give them the opportunity to try again. They make people feel guilty for wanting to forgo treatment and remain comfortable for as long as possible. It is the role of nurses to ensure that the patients’ voices and wishes are heard.
That’s what this comes down to. It was Donna’s mind and her choice. She knew, she understood what it meant to continue on with the Human/Time Lord Biological Metacrisis and the DoctorDonna. She felt her quality of life was better, that she was better having done the things she had while traveling with him and was unwilling to lose all of that. Even if it meant her mind burning. But that would have been a failure for the Doctor. The first proper companion death since Adric. And he couldn’t stand for that. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand what she was doing, she did. She absolutely understood everything. That was the point. He just couldn’t standby and let her make that choice so he took it from her. Forced her to live a life that she considered less fulfilling. Indefinitely. With no memory of what she could have had. Which I suppose is a small mercy, at least she didn’t live in misery and regret.
The Doctor made this decision about him, as all doctors do. (And worse, Davies let him, never offering any sort of criticism or question that the Doctor might have erred.) About what he could accomplish, about who he could save, about how much loss he could handle. It should never have been about him. There was another, more important player in this decision whose voice was silenced through selfishness. It was a voice which may have been heard through the intervention of a nurse.
There is a reason that the Doctor chose his name. He wants to help, he wants to heal but he so often forgets that the people he wants to help and heal have opinions and thoughts of their own. He is the Doctor, Time Lord from Gallifrey, why would anyone doubt his judgement? Why would anyone doubt the judgement of someone with a medical degree? Because it is their life and their choice. That is what a nurse does for you. That is what Rory does. After dreaming of being a doctor, the worst thing Rory can imagine is turning into the Doctor.
Which is such a dramatic change from Rory’s “dream” of being a doctor in Amy’s Choice. Because Rory has worked with doctors, he has worked in a hospital, he knows that acting like a doctor is remarkably similar to acting like the Doctor. And, of course he dreamed of being a doctor. No boy growing up dreams of being a nurse. That’s for girls, for people preparing to be mothers, for the natural caregivers. The men need to make the big decisions so the women can carry out their orders.
In this regard, it’s worth looking at another show that floats around Doctor Who’s general orbit, Supernatural - a show that, perhaps improbably and counter-intuitively, has often been paired with Doctor Who and Sherlock in a meta-fandom known as “Superwholock.” I started watching Supernatural when it was wrapping the first season and I loved it. I reveled in what appeared to be reversal of the male gaze paired with mythic storytelling that I loved. And while the show does have some cheeky, clever and subversive moments and themes regarding gender, it is so preoccupied with reaffirming the masculinity of the cast that a consist subtext is the chanting of “no-homo” (notably, it is profoundly fucked up that the response is “no-homo” and not “no-incest”). Though, in this, viewers have promptly ignored despite the reiterations of both cast and crew.
And there are clever subversions of “typical” masculinity. We have the hyper-masculine man’s man, Dean who is overwhelmingly the emotional brother. Time after time, we get close ups of Dean wiping away manly tears. Despite Sam being the “nerdy” brother, it is again Dean who, time after time, drops references to Star Trek, Star Wars or other canonically “nerdy” interests. And then we have Crowley who “regains” his emotions only when he becomes less demonic. The show literally demonizes typical masculinity.
But it it the same show that flat out denies that most of its fan base is female. We see this in the season 5 episode “The Real Ghostbusters” which parodies a real life Supernatural convention in which the attending fan base comprised of a large number of typically geeky, neckbeardy men with a few (one, in this case) rabid female fans who were explicitly fans of shipping. Despite this nod to the real fandom, the episode ignores the fact that the majority of actual viewers are female.
It is a show that ruthlessly queerbaits a significant portion of its fan base. Lines from the series include (between Dean and the male-protrayed angel Castiel) “Cas, not for nothing, but the last time someone looked at me like that…I got laid” and “Dean and I do share a more profound bond.” Despite the clear queerbaiting, this is a divisive issue among the fans of the show, causing outright alienation from the fandom for some and the cast, Jensen Ackles in particular, is uncomfortable enough with this train of thought to actively shut down questions from fans regarding possible relationships.
It is a show that frequently and ruthlessly shoves its female characters into refrigerators. The final two episodes of season 8 were an extended FridgeFest, most of the surviving females (few enough as it was) were picked off one by one. The express intent of this FridgeFest was to convince the brothers to agree to a deal as all of the people they have ever saved are killed. The survivors of this cull included the token saved female (Sheriff Jodi Mills), Felicia Day and Meg, the demon. Who died the next episode.
The appeal, for me, what the mythos but also that masculinity with a twist. As the show progresses, while I still enjoy watching it, I am becoming more and more aware of the problematic beats that undermine the good bits. That masculinity with a twist is exactly what is so well represented with Rory. A masculinity that is markedly not in line with a doctor’s role of barking orders, insensitive comments and callous decisions.
Instead, the masculinity presented by Rory is actually very in line with the attitude behind Call the Midwife. You do what you do because you have to, you take care of the people around you because they are your responsibility as much as you are theirs. The hallmark of the masculinity Rory represents can be found in The Girl Who Waited. While the Doctor’s instinct (again, so doctorish) is to withhold information to lead Amy and Rory to a conclusion, Rory’s inclination is to give her all of the information he has so that she can make an educated and thought out decision about her life. And he is going to support her in any way. The sort of masculinity we see in Rory is so informed by his history as a nurse in that his goal is always to support those around him to be the best they can be. Always.
It is in subtle contrast to the type of masculinity seen in the Doctor (which is, again, masculinity with a twist). In contrast to what we see in shows like Supernatural, in which the immediate male reaction to situations is violence to protect others (which is occasionally interrogated in Supernatural, I will give them that credit), the Doctor’s immediate reaction is to figure out what the hell is going on and make bad decisions so that others don’t have to. Sometimes, he reacts to new things with wonder and hope like in Kill the Moon or even in the early stages of Flatline. But sometimes terrible decisions need to be made and, in order to protect those he cares for (and the Doctor does care so much) he makes those decisions for them. Which can be an immensely problematic attitude, as we see in the case of Donna.
In the end, this caretaking is the pinnacle of masculinity in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Look at Danny Pink. Danny Pink who doesn’t particularly like that his girlfriend runs off to have adventures in space and time with a man who regularly pushes her to her limits. Danny Pink who, despite his qualms, only asks Clara to be honest and open with him. Danny Pink who, even upon finding out that Clara has been lying to him for weeks about traveling with the Doctor doesn't shout or get angry or expect an immediate answer, he gives her time and space to think, simply asking for an honest answer. Danny Pink who is curious, bewildered and enchanted by a situation still remembers that his curiosity is not the priority, those around him are. Danny Pink who recognizes that there are wonders here.
And of course, this is not Moffat’s first foray into examining the concept of masculinity, who has been interrogating traditional masculinity ever since the character of Spike back in Press Gang, most obviously in his withering portrayal of himself in Joking Apart, the first of many brilliant but unthinkingly cruel men he would write. Nor is this a new train for Doctor Who whose challenge of stereotypical male roles is part of what made it so attractive to gay men. The typical “male” aggression has little place in exploring the universe, one needs to be thoughtful and curious and kind. It is this slightly twisted masculinity that is vaulted by Doctor Who.
TLDR: If you want a real man, get a nurse.